Image Narration The Tensions of Fiction by MikeJenny


									                          The Politics of Fiction


    The title I gave to this talk is obviously a bit too ambitious. I am not going to tell what the
politics of fiction consists in .I will tackle the issue from a restricted angle, which is the
discussion on the signification of realistic description in modern novel. In 1968 Roland
Barthes published his canonical article The Reality Effect. This text starts by focusing on a
detail picked up in a canonical example of French literature, Flaubert‟s short story A simple
heart published in 1877. As he describes the living room of the house where her character
lives, the writer tells us that “An old piano supported, under a barometer, a pyramidal heap of
boxes and cartons”. The question immediately arises: why mention this barometer? Obviously
he is of no use to follow the plot; it tells nothing about the main character of the story. Nor
does the pyramidal heap of boxes and cartons make us see anything determinate. It is clear
however that those useless details can not be merely imputed to the lack of discernment of a
particular writer. The point is not about a superfluous element in a description: it is about
description itself. The superfluous barometer points to a wider problem or a paradox. In
European literature, the 19th century appears as the great age of the novel, the moment of its
greater artistic achievements and of its deeper significance as a form of interpretation of social
and historical experience. But, on the other hand, this great age of the novel appears to be the
time when the narrative logic is more and more thwarted by an excess of description which
stands in the way of the plot. Balzac‟s descriptions of each piece of furniture in provincial
parlours are the best known case of this excess. But the same accusation has been voiced by
20th century writers against their elders. In the Surrealist Manifesto, André Breton opposes the
absolute rights of poetic imagination to the plainness of realistic description. He illustrates his
criticism by discarding Dostoyevsky‟s description of the wallpaper and furniture of the
usurer‟s room in Crime and Punishment with a few words: “He is wasting his time, for I
refuse to go into his room”. In his prologue to Bioy Casares‟ novel The Invention of Morel,
Borges opposes the true work of the writer which is the invention of an ingenious plot to the
burdensome commitment of the great French novelists to everyday reality. Even in Marcel
Proust who is not held to be a “naturalist” novelist, he finds too many pages and chapters that
are, he says, “unacceptable as inventions” and that we have to accept as we do with “the
insipid and idle everyday”. The question I will address is the following: how can we interpret
this coincidence between the triumph of the novel and this invasion of the prosaic and idle

everyday? How are we understand that the great age of fiction coincide with a rupture in the
narrative logic?

    Roland Barthes‟s text appears to offer an account for this paradox. The critique of the
“reality effect” is in keeping with the denunciation of realism in the name of both the free
deployment of fiction and the perfection of the plot. It is predicated on the modernist idea of
the work of art as the autonomous development of its own inner necessity, dismissing the old
logic of resemblance and referentiality. This modernist idea of the work of art connects with
the method of the structural analysis which envisions the work as a machine in which each
piece has a definite place and function. In this respect the barometer is clearly superfluous.
But if the structuralist method is coherent, it must account for this “superfluity”. It has to
prove that the superfluous is not superfluous, that literary works which do not obey the
structuralist principle of economy are nevertheless accountable for a structural analysis. The
superfluous must be given a place and a status in the structure. Now the status that Barthes
gives it is the typical status that the modernist presupposition can give to what is in excess: the
status of the survivor. Barthes offers two reasons for the realistic excess. First it follows a
tradition that dates back to Antiquity, the tradition of the “epidictic” discourse in which the
object of the description matters less than the deployment of brilliant images and metaphors ,
showing the virtuosity of the author for the sole sake of aesthetic pleasure. Second, it has a
function of attestation. If an element is somewhere though there is no reason for its being-
there, this means precisely that its being-there is unconditional, that it is there simply because
it is there. So the useless detail says: I am the real, the real which is useless, meaningless, the
real which proves its reality out of the very fact that it is useless and meaningless.
    This attestation of the real appears to backtrack on an opposition that structured the logic
of representation. Since Aristotle it had been taken for granted that poetic fiction consists in
constructing a plot of verisimilitude, a logical concatenation of actions as they might have
happened. Aristotle opposed that logic of fiction to history that just told facts as they happen,
one after the other. From that point of view, the reality-effect breaks away from the causal
logic of representation. But it does it by implementing a half-way strategy: it takes up the
„realistic” principle of history by clinging to the real as real, and it makes it a new kind of
verisimilitude opposed to the classical one. Now, Barthes says, this new type of verisimilitude
became the nucleus of a fetishism of the real, characteristic of media culture and illustrated by
photography, news reports, tourism devoted to monuments and historical places, etc. All this
stuff, Barthes concludes, “tells us that the Real is supposed to be self-sufficient, that it is

strong enough to deny any idea of a fiction, that its enunciation does not need to be integrated
in a structure and that the having-been-here of things is a sufficient condition for them being
told”. That which is fascinating in this sentence is indeed the way it lends itself to an
overturning that will happen ten years after when Barthes will make the “having-been-here”
of things the punctum which is the truth of photography and repudiates the pointless
informative content of the studium. Now this overturning has been made possible precisely by
the very construction of a simple opposition between the fictional structure and the absolute
singularity of the mere “having-been here”. I think that a closer consideration of the
“pyramid of boxes and cartons” on the old piano might have provided the analysis with a third
term that could have disrupted the too simple opposition between the functional rationality of
the narrative structure and the absolute singularity. I‟ll try to show that the “idle everyday” of
the realistic novel is the place and time of a bifurcation of times more radical than the
bifurcation of paths and narrative lines cherished by Borges, and that the focussing on the
reality effect misses the real disruption that is at the heart of aesthetic fiction. It misses it
because the “modernist” idea of the structure is still in keeping with the representative logic
that it pretends to challenge, so that it also misses the political issue involved in the “realistic”

                   The point is in fact that the opposition of the “structure” to the “idle” or
“pointless” notations of the “real re-enacts a much older criticism of realistic fiction that had
been already made by many critics, and mostly reactionary critics. Flaubert‟s descriptions on
which Barthes‟s analysis focuses are a very significant case in point. At the very time of his
writing , a number of critics already targeted the enumeration of details, the rage of
description that filled his novels and characterized more widely contemporary literature. For
instance his contemporary, the catholic writer and literary critic Barbey d‟Aurevilly,
denounced his “infinite, eternal, atomistic, blinding “practice of description. As he put it

          “there is no book there; there is not this thing, this creation , this work of art
constituted by a book with an organized development(..) He goes without a plan, pushing
ahead, without a preconceived overview, not being aware that life, under the diversity and the
apparent disorder of its vagaries has its logical and inflexible laws (…) it is a loitering among
the insignificant, the vulgar and the abject for the sole pleasure of the walking”.

        This criticism is clearly predicated on a certain idea of fiction. It is predicated on the
Aristotelian or representative idea of fiction. According to that idea, a work of art is a definite
kind of structure: it is an organic totality, possessing all the constituent parts necessary for life
and nothing more; it must look like a living body endowed with all the required limbs,
assembled in the unity of a form, under the commandment of a head that sets the limbs into
motion . The “realistic “novel falls short of this requirement. For Barbey the point is not only
that there are some details, which contribute nothing to the working of the fictional structure
and only play the part of the real affirming “I am the real”. The point is that the parts are not
subordinated to the whole; the limbs don‟t obey the head. The new realistic novel is a
monster. It belongs to a new fictional cosmology in which the functional concatenation of
ideas and actions, of causes and effects no longer works. In the boxes of the new novelist, all
things are lumped together. The artist has become a worker. He carries his sentences ahead,
Barbey says, just as a roadman carries his stones ahead in a wheelbarrow. The comparison
shows that this new fictional cosmology is a new social cosmology as well. Another critic of
the same time made the point about the political signification of that way of writing: This is
democracy, he said: democracy in literature or literature as democracy. The “insignificance”
of the details is tantamount to their perfect equality. They are equally important or equally
pointless. The reason why they are so is that they concern people whose life is insignificant.
Those people clutter up the space, leaving no room for the selection of interesting characters
and the harmonious development of a plot. It is exactly the opposite of the traditional novel,
the novel of the monarchical and aristocratic times, which benefited from the space created by
a clearly stratified social hierarchy: in this space, I quote

      „The characters embodying all the refinements of birth, education and the heart left no
room for secondary figures, still less for material objects. This exquisite society saw ordinary
people only through the doors of its carriages and the countryside only through the windows
of its palaces. This left wide and fertile scope for the analysis of the finest sentiments, which
are always more complicated and harder to decipher in the souls of the elite than amongst the
lower classes.‟

     The reactionary critic bluntly tells us the social basis of the representative poetics: the
structural relation of the parts to the whole rested on a partition between the souls of the elite
and those of the lower classes. When this partition vanishes, fiction gets overfilled with the
insignificant events and sensations of all those common people who either were not counted

within the representative logic or were counted at their (lower) place and represented in the
(lower) genres fitting their condition. This is what the rupture of the logic of verisimilitude
means. Barthes referred that logic to the old Aristotelian opposition between poetry and
history indeed , but he forgot that this formal poetic distinction was also a political one.
Poetry was defined as a concatenation of actions, opposed to the mere historical succession of
facts . But “action” is not the mere fact of doing something. Action is a sphere of existence.
Concatenations of actions could only concern individuals who lived in the sphere of action,
who were capable of conceiving great designs and of risking them in the confrontation with
other great designs and with the strokes of Fortune. They could not concern people who were
bogged down in the condition of bare life, devoted to the sole task of its infinite
reproduction. Verisimilitude is not only about what effect can be expected from a cause; it is
also about what can be expected from an individual living in this or that situation, what kind
of perception, feeling and behaviour can be attributed to him or her.
      In other terms, the question of fiction contains two questions which impact on each
other. Fiction designates a certain arrangement of events. But fiction also designates the
relation of a referential world to alternative worlds. This is not a question of relation between
the real and the imaginary. This is a question of a distribution of capacities of sensory
experience, of what individuals can live, what they can experience and how far their
feelings, gestures and behaviours are worth telling to other individuals. This is the case with
the short story Barthes is referring to, namely Flaubert‟s A simple heart. The barometer is not
here to attest that the real is the real. The question is not about the real , it is about life , about
the moment when “bare life” - life normally devoted to look , day after day, whether the
whether will be fine or bad - takes on the temporality of a chain of sensuous events that are
worth telling. The idle barometer expresses a still unheard-of poetics of life, evincing the
capacity of anybody, for instance Flaubert‟s old servant, to turn the routine of the everyday
into the depth of passion. And in Flaubert‟s story the same passionate feeling can be devoted
indifferently to a lover, a master, a kid and eventually a parrot. The reality effect is an
equality effect. But equality does not simply mean the equivalence of all the objects and
feelings described by the novelist .It is not the case that all sensations are equivalent. It is the
case that any sensation can produce for any woman belonging to the “lower classes” the
vertiginous acceleration making her able to experience the abysses of passion.
      This is what the superfluous barometer is about. And this is what the reactionary
contemporaries of Flaubert have in mind when they equate the excess of description with the
invasion of “democracy”. The point is not that there are too many things. The point is that

there are two many possibilities given to anybody to use anything as an object of passion.
This is the frightening signification of literary “democracy” anybody can feel anything. The
object of this passion does not matter. Felicité, the servant in A simple heart is a perfect
servant. But she no longer serves as one must do, according to both the logic of poetic
verisimilitude and the duty of a good servant. She does it too lovingly; she does it with an
intensity of feeling and passion that exceeds by far the intensity of her mistress‟s feelings.
This intensity is not only useless, it is dangerous. Some years before A Simple Heart
Flaubert‟s colleagues and friends, the Goncourt Brothers had published the story of another
servant, Germinie Lacerteux. Germinie too is fanatically devoted to her mistress. But in the
course of the novel it appears that the passion that makes her a perfect servant also makes her
a woman able of anything to serve her own passions and her own sexual desires up to the last
degree of degradation.
       So the angelic Felicité and the monstrous Germinie are two sisters; both belong to the
dangerous family of those daughters of peasants who prove able to feel every violent desire or
every ideal aspiration as well. It is this new capacity of anyone to live alternative lifes which
forbids the right subordination of the parts to the whole. There is no book, says Barbey, but
only pictures, nailed together. The aristocratic deployment of the action is blocked by the
democratic clutter of images. But what happens is much more a double loss with respect to
the representative logic. Just as the action has lost its former structure of a concatenation of
causes and effects, the image has lost its old functions of conveying the emotional quality of
the action or displaying pleasant views during its pauses. Action and perception, narration
and image have become one and the same fabric of sensory micro-events. The critics
denounce them as “images “that obstruct the straight way of the plot. But “image” is an
ambiguous term. As a matter of fact, the so-called images don‟t give us so much to see. [
Burke had already given the reason for this: violent emotions and passions are best conveyed
by words than by visual representation, because words do not really make what they describe
visible. This is the case indeed for the still-unheard form of violence which consists in the
capacity of anyone to experience any kind of feeling – either sublime or abject. ]Images are
not descriptions of the visible. They are operators producing differences of intensity. Now
those differences of intensity evince a re-distribution of the sensory capacities, or ,to put it as
Plato did , of the hierarchy between golden souls and iron souls. The democracy of the
realistic novel is the music of the equal capacity of anyone to experience any kind of life. The
“image” is not added to the narration, it has become the music of equality in which the very
opposition between action and image vanishes.

      This is, I think, the real issue at stake in the so-called reality effect. Barthes‟s analysis
does not take into account this political issue because, in my view, the idea of structure which
sustains his investigation of the status of the „real” in literature is still in keeping with the
idea of structure entailed in the representative logic: the structure as a functional
arrangement of causes and effects that subordinates the parts to the whole. Structural
analysis, for him, has to account for “the entire surface of the narrative fabric” and assign
every narrative unit a place in the structure. Therefore the “structuralist” analyst comes up
against the same scandal as the champions of the representative poetics: descriptive
notations that fulfil no function and thereby “increase the cost of narrative information”. He
equates it with the tautological affirmation of the real as the real. But I think that the criticism
of the reactionary champions of the old verisimilitude felt more accurately what was at stake:
the invasion of “democracy” they said: a new “stubborn” social reality bursting out any good
structure of the plot, any right concatenation of actions. This is the point: Barthes analyzes the
“reality effect” from the “modernist” point of view , equating literary modernity, and its
political import, with a purification of the plot-structure, brushing aside the parasitic images
of “the real”. But literature as the modern configuration of the art of writing is just the
contrary: it is the suppression of the boundaries delineating the space of this purity. What is at
stake in this “excess” is not the opposition of the singular to the structure. It is the conflict of
two distributions of the sensible.
      Nineteenth Century critics drew a straight line from democracy viewed of as the
Tocquevillian “equality of conditions “to the realistic proliferation of superfluous details. But
the link between political democracy and literary democracy is much more complicated. And
it is this complexity which is reflected in the tensions of fiction. The tension between “action”
and “description” does not only oppose modern literature to the old poetic rules. It also
dwells in the very heart of modern literary fiction. The issue of the “descriptive excess” points
to this inner tension. I‟ll try to show it by going back over one of the criticisms I mentioned at
the beginning: André Breton‟s criticism of Dostoyevsky‟ description of the usurer‟s room. I
quote first his quotation, then his comment:

“The little room into which the young man walked, with yellow paper on the walls,
geraniums and muslin curtains in the windows, was brightly lighted up at that moment by the
setting sun…     The furniture, all very old and of yellow wood, consisted of a sofa with a huge
bent wooden back, an oval table in front of the sofa, a dressing-table with a looking-glass

fixed on it between the windows, chairs along the walls and two or three half-penny prints in
yellow frames, representing German damsels with birds in their hands—that was all.”

I am in no mood to admit that the mind is interested in occupying itself with such matters,
even fleetingly. It may be argued that this school-boy description has its place, and that at this
juncture of the book the author has his reasons for burdening me. Nevertheless he is wasting
his time, for I refuse to go into his room”.

      But the refusal to go into the room misses the crucial question: what does “his room”
mean or “whose room “it is? And this is what Dostoyevsky‟s description is about. In fact he
describes two rooms in one. Significantly André Breton has skipped in his quotation two
sentences that construct this duality. So let me read over the whole passage:

“The little room into which the young man walked, with yellow paper on the walls,
geraniums and muslin curtains in the windows, was brightly lighted up at that moment by the
setting sun. “So the sun will shine like this then too!” flashed as it were by chance through
Raskolnikov‟s mind, and with a rapid glance he scanned everything in the room, trying as far
as possible to notice and remember its arrangement. But there was nothing special in the
room. The furniture, all very old and of yellow wood, consisted of a sofa with a huge bent
wooden back, an oval table in front of the sofa, a dressing-table with a looking-glass fixed on
it between the windows, chairs along the walls and two or three half-penny prints in yellow
frames, representing German damsels with birds in their hands—that was all.”

   Dostoyevsky himself tells us that the description is pointless. But he also tells us why it is
so: because the inventory of the furniture does not play the role Raskolnikov assigns it. He
scans the room in order to map the scene of the murder he is planning. But there is “nothing
special” in the room, nothing that is worth including in the scheme of the planned murder.
What remains thus is “another” room, the room he had first perceived, an “impressionist”
room which is made of patches of colour: yellow paper, muslin curtains and the shining of a
sunset, producing a flash in his mind: “So the sun will shine like this then too!”. The latter
notation is somehow absurd: how can he can know whether the day of the murder will be
sunny or not? Precisely it is not a matter of knowing. The room of the murder, the room in
which it will take place is not the room he is looking at knowingly as a criminal methodically
planning his act. It is the room of a hallucination. As a matter of fact the murder will take on
the form of a hallucination provoked by an access of fever.

     So it is not the case that the description clutters up the way of the action. Instead it splits
it up . The apparent banality of the description evinces a duality of the room which in turn
evinces a division at the very heart of the action. As is well- known, Raskolnikov has planned
his murder out of a rational theory about society: poor talented people, as he is, can use
extraordinary means to get out of their misery and allow society to benefit from their capacity.
He has a model, Napoleon, the son of an obscure plebeian family who became the Emperor of
the French and the master of Europe. So he rationalizes his murder according to a strategic
rationality of ends and means. But the rationalization of the act does not result in a capacity of
making a rational decision and implementing it in cold-blood. On the contrary, he can do it
only as an access of fever. The so-called “superfluity” of the description is the staging of this
inner division. The new literary plot, the plot of the democratic times separates action from
itself. The failure of the strategic model characterizes at once the structure of the realistic
novel and the behaviour of his characters. The ruin of the aristocratic/representational
paradigm also entails the ruin of a certain idea of fiction, which means a certain pattern of
linkage between thinking, feeling and doing.

          I wish to illustrate this point by commenting on a strange episode of a novel which
stages an elder brother of Dostoyevsky‟s Raskolnikov, Stendhal‟s Julien Sorel. Julien Sorel,
the main character of Red and Black is a son of the French Revolution, an admirer of
Napoleon who uses all means to leave his low condition. In such a way the reader of the novel
who follows the events of his personal life is also introduced to the interplay of the relations
of power that make up the post-revolutionary society. This is why Erich Auerbach, in his
book Mimesis, makes that novel an important step in the progress of the representation of
reality in western literature. It initiates modern realism which implies that man is involved in
a political, economic and social reality in permanent evolution. But in order to emphasize this
idea of “realism”, Auerbach must forget the oddities of the plot. At the end of the novel,
Julien is in jail and expects a death sentence for having shot his former lover who had
denounced him to the father of his second lover. The latter and a friend are moving heaven
and earth in order to save Julien‟s life. But he tells them not to pester him with “these details
of real life”. He wants to live only the life of the imagination. So he spends his days doing
nothing, walking on the terrace of the prison and smoking cigars. I quote an extract of the

“In fact, he said to himself, it seems that my destiny is to die dreaming. A nonentity like
myself, who is sure to be forgotten in a fortnight‟s time, would be a real sucker, you have to
admit, to get all theatrical.

It‟s strange all the same that I‟ve only understood the art of enjoying life since seeing the end
so close at hand”.

  There is no more here any “description” that stops the course of the action. Julien decides
to live only the life of imagination but there is no image that expresses this life of
imagination. That which blocks action is the division in the very heart of “life”. In prison
Julien has discovered the “art of enjoying life” . This late “discovery” does not only contradict
the character of the ambitious young man . It also contradicts the science with which the
novelist had constructed his novel as a travel across the networks of social relationships and
social intrigues. All along the narration, Julien has calculated all his attitudes and the novelist
has added to this calculations the explanations arising from his own science of social relations
and individual psychology. The course of the plot has coincided with the development of
those intrigues. But at the last moment the plot divorces from the logic of the intrigues. The
gunshot is the first act of the hero that has not been decided out of a calculation. Instead it
bids farewell to all calculations and sets the hero in a space and time which has no more
anything to do with the space and time of ambitions and expectations, a space and time
devoted to doing nothing but “enjoying life”.

      In order to understand the issue at stake in this blissful “doing nothing” that puts an end
to the career of the ambitious plebeian, I propose to connect it with another “doing nothing”
formulated in a very different text, a German philosophical text. Two years before the
publication of Stendhal‟s novel, Hegel commented, in his Lessons on aesthetics, upon two
paintings by Murillo representing beggar boys in the street of Seville. One of them shows a
mother picking lice out of the head of a boy while he quietly munches his bread. Another one
shows two ragged boys eating grapes and melon. The attention the philosopher pays to those
“genre paintings” representing the everyday life of low people illustrates the upheaval of the
hierarchical logic of the representative regime. But Hegel is not satisfied with merely
affirming that all subject-matters are equivalent. Instead he makes a strong connection
between the quality of Murillo‟s painting and the activity of those little beggars, an activity
which consists in doing nothing and taking care of nothing. They show, he says, an absolute
lack of concern with the external reality, an inner freedom amidst this external reality which is

exactly what is demanded by the concept of the Ideal in Art. As they squat on the ground,
they enjoy a form of blissfulness that makes them almost like the Olympic Gods.

   So , in the prose of Hegel, the paintings of the beggar boys that a prince had purchased
in the representative age as picturesque illustrations of the ways of being of the low people
come to express the new aesthetic equality , the capacity of “doing nothing” and caring for
nothing , the capacity of idleness which belongs to the Olympic Gods. As he described them,
Hegel probably had in mind Schiller‟s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man in which
Schiller comments upon the “ever-contented” divinities of Olympus, that the Greek sculptors
had represented “freed from the bonds inseparable from every purpose, every duty, every
care” . Schiller describes an antique statue , the Juno Ludovisi . It says that she “ reposes and
dwells in itself , a creation completely self-contained and , as if existing beyond space, never
yielding nor resisting; here is no force to contend with force , no frailty where temporality
might break in”. The beggar boys are given by Hegel this “idleness” of the divinity which
neither yields nor resists. But it is also the same “idleness” that Stendhal‟s character
discovers : the state in which “no force contends with force” while all his career , all the
career of the plebeian who wants to make his way in society, had been a question of force
contending with force.

     But if the careless young beggars and the ambitious plebeian can be offered the same
enjoyment of the “Olympian” idleness, it is because the idleness that Schiller and Hegel
attributed to the Olympic Gods was itself a plebeian invention, a mark of a plebeian form of
aesthetic upheaval. The state in which there is neither yielding nor resistance, in which no
force contends with force, has a name. In French it is called “reverie”. At the end of his life a
son of artisan, a writer who was a major inspiration for Schiller and Kant and for Stendhal as
well, namely Jean-Jacques Rousseau, wrote his “Reveries of a solitary walker”. One of those
reveries is devoted to describing the course of the idle days he spent in a little island in
Switzerland after having being condemned by the Parliament in France and threatened by the
mob in Switzerland. This island, he says, was like a prison where he would have liked to
spend the rest of his life. His time there was devoted partly to collecting plants, partly to doing
nothing, spending hours lying on one‟s back in a small boat drifting on the lake, just enjoying
the mere feeling of existing , without any care , or , in other words, the farniente. The
farniente of the reverie is no laziness. Laziness is the vice of the bad worker. Idleness is the
virtue of those who have not to care for work. I remind you of Borges‟s criticism about the

“idle everyday” invading literature with Balzac, Flaubert or Proust. But this “idleness” is not
the superfluity that has perniciously invaded literature. Instead it is the upheaval in the
distribution of social temporalities that has made literature possible. In the old distribution of
the sensible, there was no “idle everyday” for the plebeian; the everyday meant either work or
laziness. We can put it in other terms: the traditional distribution of the sensible opposed the
realm of aristocratic action to the realm of plebeian fabrication. The “doing nothing” of the
plebeian is the upheaval of the opposition between acting and making. Anybody can enjoy the
idle state of reverie. This new equality frames a new sphere of aesthetic experience (in spite
of Bourdieu, Kant‟s “disinterestedness” owes much more to the plebeian reverie than to
aristocratic detachment. It also frames a new regime of identification of art). One of the main
aspects of this regime is the disruption of the old structures of narrative performance. The so-
called “reality effect”, the focussing on the “pointless” or “idle” everyday, first means this
disruption, this splitting in the heart of the narrative performance. Words are in excess
because of this excess that is constituted by the entrance of the sons of artisans and peasants
into a new sensible world which is the realm of wild passion and the realm of idleness as well.

     This aesthetic disruption is at the heart of literature and of the politics of literature. It
also separates aesthetic democracy and notably literary democracy from political democracy.
This is what is witnessed by the oddities of Stendhal‟s novel. For the plebeian – and for the
plot which tells his rise and fall- equality appears to be split up from the very beginning. On
the one hand equality is the right adjustment of his capacity to a position that is refused to the
plebeian. It is an end that he wants to conquer by opposing force to force and using an
appropriate set of means. But, on the other hand, equality is a new modality of sensible
experience that he can enjoy immediately, on one condition: bidding farewell to the play of
opposite forces, or the play of ends and means. Eventually Julien Sorel withdraws himself
from all the schemes he had plotted in order to conquer a place in society. He turns his prison
into the island that was Rousseau‟s metaphoric prison, a place for enjoying the pure feeling of
existence. The woman he has tried to murder will soon visit him in prison, and they will fall
in love again; he will revive with her the only happy moments of his past life: moments
devoted to the equal enjoyment of existence as such or, in other terms, to sharing sensuous
equality. Again this is not only a question of fictional characters. It is a question of fictional
structure. The moment of perfect blissfulness of the character is the moment when the logic of
the plot, identifying the causal concatenation of narrative actions with the interplay of social
intrigues, collapses. As the fictional structure of the concatenation of ends and means or

causes and effects tends to identify with the struggle of social forces, it is bitten by a force of
inertia. In Red and Black, the force of inertia is the force of the plebeian reverie or the
plebeian enjoyment of sensible equality which parts from all forms of plebeian struggle
against social hierarchies. But the splitting of the logic of action is not specific to one novel.
[The same happens in Stendhal‟s other great novel The Charterhouse of Parma in which the
hero is no more a son of artisan but a young aristocrat.] The split in the heart of the action
concerns by and large the aesthetic plot, the construction of fictional plots within the aesthetic
logic. It is no coincidence, I think, that the first author who brought on the stage the failure of
strategy was also the thinker of the aesthetic state, Schiller, when he featured, in the trilogy of
Wallenstein, the strange character of a general, the archetype of the man of action and
decision, unable to act until the science of the astrologist tells the good occasion and
ultimately forced to act in the worst situation. After him the plot of the powerless omnipotent
strategist took on a multiplicity of figures. In the 1830‟s, Balzac imagined an association of
thirteen intriguers knowing all the secrets and pulling all the strings of the social machine.
Those intriguers end up failing in all their endeavours. Balzac gives us a strange reason for
their failure. As he puts it: “since they could do everything in society, they did not care for
being something within it “. Thirty years after Balzac, Tolstoï set up on the wider stage of
history the failure of the strategic – or the Napoleonic – model of action. Generals think they
are achieving their great designs by ranging their troops on the battlefield according to their
strategy. But the success or the failure depends on random chances on the spot; it depends on
a multiplicity of interwoven little causes that no strategist can master. That‟s why the best
general, Kutuzov, takes a nap when the staff discusses about strategy. Ten years after, Emile
Zola‟s twenty books cycle purported to offer the scientific account of the rise of a plebeian
family identified with the rise of modern democratic society and modern neurosis. But, in the
last book of the cycle, the whole scientific edifice shatters down : the records of the scientist
demonstrating how the laws of heredity determined this evolution are burnt and they are
replaced on the shelves by the clothes of a baby , the incestuous child of the scientist
symbolizing the stubborn triumph of life, pursuing no end at all.

      So the realistic excess has nothing to do with the exhibition of the Bourgeois display of
riches and confidence in the reign of Bourgeoisie that some authors have detected in it. What
is at its heart is much more the trouble introduced when the excess of passion and the
emptiness of reverie are appropriated by the souls of the lower classes. This is also why it
does not offer much to the opposite interpretation which gives him credit for its progressive

sense of the historical movement. According to Auerbach realistic novel makes individual
destinies coincide with the knowing representation of modern social and political forces. I
think it is quite the contrary: it evinces the impossibility of the coincidence, the disjunction
between knowing and acting, doing and being. The literary ways of equality divorce from its
political ways.

     But, on the other hand, the broken plots of literature make us perceive the disjunction at
the heart of the global schemas of historical evolution and revolutionary politics. When the
young Marx opposes the “human revolution “to the “merely political” revolution, he is in
keeping with the discovery of a “sensuous” equality that goes beyond the transformation of
governmental institutions. But when he predicates revolutionary action on the existence of a
class of men entirely dispossessed of their humanity, he parts with the forms of emancipation
of those workers who affirm their capacity of enjoying here and now a world of sensible
equality. Political decision appeared to be bitten by aesthetic equality, by the plebeian
capacity of “doing nothing”. This is why Marx set out to annihilate this “doing nothing” by
the affirmation of a radical dispossession or a radical nothingness, the nothingness of the class
having nothing to loose but its chains. And he gave the power of getting out of this
nothingness to science. But the answer of the science of the social structure to the demands of
revolutionary action proved as problematic as the science of Wallenstein‟s astrologist.
Revolution was supposed to happen as the handling of social contradiction predicated on the
knowledge of the concatenation of causes and effects that structure exploitation and
domination. But the process through which knowledge gets to the point where it can
determine the action postpones indefinitely this point. The time when scientific socialism tied
up the communist future with the intrinsic development of the productive forces is also the
time that broke away from the theories assigning a goal to life and giving science the task to
know this goal and to determine the means of reaching it. “Life wants nothing”, such is the
nihilist secret that bites from the inside the optimistic scientist narratives of late European 19th
century. Marxist science indeed knew how to cope with this secret. It translated it in the terms
of a strategy of ends and means and of the expectation of the right time. It explained that the
march toward socialism could not anticipate the development of the economic and social
process, that it could not impose its desires to the course of things. But, beneath the idea of
scientific adaptation to the movement of life, there was the deeper feeling that this movement
leads nowhere and that the will to change life does not rely on any objective process. This is
why scientific rigor had to reverse itself, to affirm itself as the mere necessity of the violent

break that imposes a direction to the endless movement of productive life. Revolution had to
be either indefinitely postponed or to be enacted as a sleight of hand, just like Julien Sorel‟s
gunshot. The straight line of action thought of as the consequence of a knowing will was

  I am not willing to elaborate on this aspect. I will just draw from my analysis some
conclusions concerning the idea of artistic modernity. I tried to set up the opposition if two
ideas of what modernity means. The structuralist analysis of the “reality effect” epitomized
by Barthes‟s text entailed an idea of artistic modernity as a strategy of subtraction, dismissing
the realistic excess of things along with the constraint of resemblance. Abstract painting
became the emblem of that idea. I think that this analysis falls off target. The heart of the
problem in realism was not the excess of things but the break in the logic of action, the self-
contradiction of the causal logic. Neither the artistic nor the political response to that self-
contradiction could be found in a strategy of subtraction. Instead the response was given by
another idea of modernity, as a strategy of addition. That strategy aimed at exceeding the
realistic excess, which meant bringing to completion the self-cancellation of the causal logic.
What that completion entailed was a form of coexistence of sensory experiences absorbing
both the excess of plebeian passion and the excess of plebeian reverie, a form of universal
connection of experiences released from any plot of causality. This can be illustrated, I think,
by a film which is a landmark in the history of revolutionary art in general, and Soviet art in
particular, Dziga Vertov‟s Man with a movie camera . What strikes us in the accelerated
montage of a multiplicity of short episodes is the equivalence of all the movements. The
assembly line in the factory and the wipe given by a shoe-shiner in the street, the work of the
miner and the doing of nails in a beauty parlour are represented as equivalent manifestations
of energy that the film connects with one another just as the employees of the telephone
exchange keep connecting still new interlocutors by constantly plugging and unplugging. As
we know, this work obeys an apparently simple motto: no plot, only reality. But we must not
be mistaken about the opposition. This does not mean that art has to represent reality and only
reality. This means: no art, no representation of reality. Cinema is not an art representing
reality to viewers . It is a form of action connecting all forms of action: the action of washing
hair, the action of extracting coal, the action of filming, cutting and pasting , the action of
viewing, etc.. This universal connection of movements frames a new sensorium in which the
distinction between reality and representation has vanished along with the distinction between
art and life . Everything is action: there is no “doing nothing”; yet , at the same time, action is

relieved of its dependency upon ends, wills and strategies. Man with a Movie Camera is a
symphony of movements which are all equal, no matter the end they pursue: production,
consumption, play or simulacrum. The connection of the movements relieves them not only of
their loneliness but also of their dependency on specific wills. The machines of socialist
industry and the tricks of the magicians express the same eurhythmy of life. Cinema frames
thereby a form of communism which escapes the dilemmas of communist strategies by
overturning the nihilistic secret of the aimlessness of life. It offers the utopia of a world that
is spontaneously communist by constructing a common sensorium in which the oriented
movement of socialist construction is attuned to the deployment of all those movements in
which life expresses nothing but its equal intensity.

     It can be said that is the privilege of the art of movement. But cinema achieves a dream
that it did not invent: it is in line with the whitmanian attempt to write a book which is not a
book, but the voice absorbing the innumerable multiplicity of voices and forms of experience,
in line with the attempt by cubist, futurist and “cubo-futurists” to break up the surface of the
canvas into numerous enough facets to express all the intensities of modern life , whether it be
that of the machines or that of popular dancing. This is, I think, what Modernism historically
meant: the construction of a sensorium of radical equality, making art and life the same thing,
to the extent that it made all experiences equivalent and connected any of them with all of
them. We know what happened to this historical dream: it was dismissed twice: it was first
repressed by the demand for “socialist realism”, which did not only mean the demand that art
serve the cause of the Soviet power but that realism forget its own contradiction which is
much more uneasy . It was dismissed a second time when western Marxists decided to draw
up the balance sheet of the first dismissal and chose the easier way to achieve it , which was
to forget what Modernism had meant and to reinvent Modernity as the conquest of artistic
autonomy. Structuralism and the conceptualization of the “reality effect” are offshoots of this
reinvention. I think it may be fruitful to-day to revisit the whole story.

                                                                Jacques Rancière


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